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Opinion: Conversations can be the catalyst for change, racial equity

Gordon Krater

This is a tragic and historic time in our communities and  our nation. The glaring spotlight on the systemic racism experienced by our Black friends and colleagues has awakened again the need for us, whatever our role is, to do something.  

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “less talk, more action,” and I agree that it’s particularly incumbent upon those of us in business and positions of authority to act. While I’ll never advocate that we sidestep the important and necessary work of acting to right the wrongs of racial injustice, the business community can’t discount the benefits of honest, candid, and open conversations. These discussions should be the catalysts that create the most effective, sustaining, and far-reaching actions.

I’m a board member of New Detroit, a coalition of leaders working to achieve racial understanding and racial equity in Metro Detroit. I joined the board 11 years ago when I was managing partner of Plante Moran (I’ve since retired) because I have a passion for business and community partnerships, and I wanted to gain a greater understanding of how I could help support and develop our talented diverse and underrepresented staff at the firm. 

Marchers take to the streets in Detroit to protest police brutality.

The discussions I had at New Detroit with people of all different backgrounds have changed how I interact with my family, my workplace, and my community. My firm helped sponsor the Racial Healing project, and through that I gained a deeper understanding of history and how it’s shaped the social inequities that we’re experiencing today. But above all, New Detroit afforded me a safe space to have those uncomfortable discussions that many of us tend to shy away from. Now New Detroit has made a declaration of war on racism — and those words have power.

I think about a conversation I had a few years back with my amazing executive assistant at Plante Moran. This was around the time of the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings, and I naively said to my executive assistant, who’s Black: “Your husband is a professional, wears a suit and tie to work—you don’t worry about him having run-ins with the police, do you?”

And she responded, “Gordon, I worry about my husband every day when he leaves our house.”

That hit me hard, and it led to one of the deepest conversations that I ever had about being Black in America. 

It made me consider how the world sees people who don’t look like me, and I regret that I hadn’t thought about it sooner.

Then there were the regular conversations I had with two up-and-coming Black women at the firm (both are now partners). We established a safe space, and over the course of many candid discussions, they helped me become an advocate and realize that our struggle to attract and retain minority staff had less to do with our recruiting efforts and more to do with how we were acclimating, developing, and promoting those staff. It propelled us to implement programs that have led to successes while also highlighting that we have more work to do.  

Responsible companies are already working hard on racial equity issues, but where do we go from here? First and foremost, I recommend getting educated about recent events and the long history of systemic racism that’s culminated in the current outcry against racial injustice. Next, check in with your Black friends and colleagues, and open the door for them to share their feelings — if they choose. Creating a non-judgmental, safe and understanding space can provide inclusive environments where everyone has a chance to succeed and prosper.

Finally, think about how to act — but keep in mind that our actions can’t be like a sparkler that burns bright and hot but quickly fizzles. Understand the role of allyship and how it helps address the long-term systemic issue and not just react to recent atrocities. 

Remember this reflection from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Powerful words, indeed.

Gordon Krater is a board member of New Detroit and former managing partner at Plante Moran.